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Holding meaningful public conversations about climate change in Scotland

By Chris Shaw on September 22, 2016

We’re helping the Scottish Government – which has the world’s most ambitious climate change targets – encourage conversations about climate change among the Scottish public.

Discussion at workshop masterclass

In 2009 the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the most ambitious climate change legislation anywhere in the world, a step which was recently described as ‘a shining example to other countries’ by the outgoing head of the United Nation’s climate change body. The Scottish Government recognises that it faces tremendous challenges in delivering on these ambitions, and that success is dependent on the support and involvement of the Scottish public. Generating an ongoing and self-sustaining national conversation about climate change in Scotland will be an essential step in building that support.

Climate Outreach were commissioned to develop a method for building a national conversation about climate change in Scotland. This pioneering project is the first of its kind in the UK and possibly anywhere in the world. It is a concept which represents a profound step change in strategies for building public engagement with climate change, and its ambition matches that of the targets Scotland has set for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Through an extensive review of best practice in public engagement, combined with results from a series of workshops and our own experience and expertise we have produced a step by step guide to every aspect of the conversation process, from the logistics to the language and images to use and avoid. The result is a complete guide for catalysing climate conversations.

Early on in the project it became apparent that many community group organisers and other opinion formers did not feel confident starting a conversation about climate change with the public. Much of this anxiety stemmed from concerns about how to cope with any climate sceptics in the group. As a consequence, community groups dealing with climate relevant issues such as improvement of energy efficiency never brought up the topic of climate change. The focus of the guidance we provided centred on helping to address these concerns, so here is the good news.

Lesson 1New Resources on Climate Comms. We encountered hardly any scepticism about climate change

Everyone we spoke to accepted the reality of climate change. Sure, sometimes someone would raise a question about how much warming is the result of human action and how much is natural, but then that is something of a live debate within climate science. This lack of scepticism may be because we were running the workshops shortly after a period of extensive and record breaking floods in Scotland. Or more likely – as we are increasingly seeing in the conversations Climate Outreach are having with people from across every section of society – it is simply that the reality of a changing climate is starting to become something that most ordinary people acknowledge and are ready to respond to. It certainly wasn’t the case that the people we spoke to for this research were environmentalists, who were already active around climate change. Which leads on to the second lesson.

Lesson 2People knew enough about climate change to be able to talk about different societal responses

We were not talking to just the already converted – the workshop participants were randomly selected members of the public and for the first three workshops, no mention of climate change was made in the information given out before the workshop. People hadn’t therefore read up on the subject before the discussion. And yet – in spite of many participants expressing doubts about their own knowledge of the subject – people had plenty to say about the impacts of climate change and options for responding.

Lesson 3You don’t need to be a climate expert to have a conversation about climate change

People were able to talk about the challenges climate change poses for Scotland without needing a primer in the science of climate change. Though people told us they would like more information about what climate change means for Scotland, in terms of having a conversation they would rather talk about what to do about the risks (that are now widely acknowledged). Not only would a conversation about the science of climate change require a great deal of expertise from the organiser, it would also inevitably leave many of the participants feeling excluded from the conversation if they themselves are not experts.

Lesson 4 Insights from new climate comms resources: People really enjoyed taking part in the conversations

We kept the design for the conversations as simple as possible, both to make it easy for organisers to hold a climate change conversation, and also to make the conversations accessible to the public. In the workshops we trialed a number of different visual prompts for conversations (videos and photographs) using an absolute minimum of text. The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive and when we asked people what they enjoyed most about the evening, it was talking with other people about climate change and hearing their opinions.

Can these lessons be applied outside of Scotland?

The principles we uncovered are aligned with findings that have emerged from our other workshops. If you bring members of the public together into an informal setting to talk about climate change, if you approach the topic starting from where people already are in terms of their values, their hopes, their concerns, if you step back and let the participants talk to each other, and if you avoid turning the discussion into a lecture about the science of climate change, people will become engaged, will participate and will enjoy having the chance to talk about this topic.

At Climate Outreach, we believe that climate conversations are the glue which can hold together the wide-ranging social, political and economic changes which will be required to meet the ambition of Scotland’s climate targets, a challenge mirrored across the rest of the world. Scaling up the alchemy of climate conversations into a national self-sustaining programme of public engagement is an exciting initiative for which the Scottish Government should be congratulated. We look forward to the next chapter in this story.

By Dr Christopher Shaw

Chris was part of Climate Outreach’s research team from 2015 – 2023. In that role, he focused on ensuring climate communication practice is informed by a robust and up-to-date evidence base, combining new research with the existing literature to provide communicators with accessible resources to support their work. Chris’s work was driven by a belief that successful climate policies are ones that are shaped by the voices, concerns and aspirations of the people who live their lives outside of the policy and campaigning bubble. Chris completed his doctoral thesis as a mature student in 2011 at the University of Sussex, on the communication of climate risk, a theme he continues to publish on. 

In his previous lives Chris worked as a Geography teacher and then in marketing, always with the ultimate aim of learning how to engage people with climate change risks. Between completing his doctoral studies and starting work at Climate Outreach, Chris held research posts at the University of Sussex and the University of Oxford. Outside of office hours Chris can normally be found either smashing his tennis racket on the ground in frustration at yet another defeat, or wandering aimlessly on the South Downs and blaming inaccurate Ordnance Survey maps for being lost.

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